So you’re thinking about buying a used Xterra (since they don’t make them anymore), or you already have one and one of the below just happened. Either way, here are the things to look out for. Overall, it’s an incredibly reliable vehicle — and I wouldn’t let any of the below scare you away from the platform (especially the 2011+ models). Some have reported up to 350,000 miles with nothing but wear and tear maintenance done.
SMOD (Strawberry Milkshake of Death – $$$$!)
2005-2009 automatic transmissions are prone to failure when the radiator cracks and allows the coolant and transmission fluid to mix. This issue was fixed with a new radiator (part number 21460-9CAOE) on 2010+ model years. In addition to cooling issues and rough acceleration — you can look for the issue by opening the radiator or coolant overflow tank. Coolant from the factory is blue and ATF red… if you have SMOD, it’ll look like a strawberry milkshake. Workarounds are replacing the radiator with the new part number or doing a bypass and adding your own auxiliary transmission cooler.
Timing Chain Guides ($$$)
2005-2007 model years had an issue with the plastic guides used to keep tension on the timing chain. When worn-out, the chain rubs against the internals, making a whirring noise at acceleration and can do significant damage to the engine. The fix is to have them replaced before they wear out completely with the replacement part.
So far, this appears to affect all model year Xterras. Usually starts with a P0420 or P0430 CEL code. It’s usually too late to do much other than replace the engine when the P0300 code is thrown. There are actually four cats on the truck (a primary and secondary on each side of the engine before the y-pipe). What happens is the cats basically disintegrate and get sucked back into the engine where they wreak havoc. Some have reported driving on the P0420/0430 codes for years. Others only a few hours before P0300 is thrown. Usually fuel mileage and power both drop before any codes are thrown. The fix is to replace the cats ASAP when the P0420/0430 codes are thrown. Seem to go out around 10 years or 130-170k miles.
Weak Spider Gears ($$$)
All model years for those trucks used to off-road heavily. The front differential spider gears are on the softer side and are easily chewed up with excessive wheel spin or sudden changes in speed (spinning wheel to immediately gaining traction). Obviously only an issue on four-wheel drive models. Lockers replace the spider gears, as does a full Titan-swap.
Fan Clutch Failure ($$)
All model years use a belt driven, clutched radiator fan.The fan will “freewheel” until thermodynamically engaged. Basically, there’s a “fluid clutch” that adds little drag to the serpentine belt until a temperature is reached and the fluid changes chemically to engage the clutch and drive the fan. When these go out, the truck sounds like a jet airplane at idle (very loud fan) and your coolant temperatures will rise when at idle and standing still. Fix is to replace the fan clutch. Typically no warning or codes. Occurrence rate is lower than other issues.
Camshaft Sensor Failure ($$)
These are as much a Nissan problem as an Xterra problem. Sensors fail and make the vehicle very difficult to start (or won’t start). Might also stall at idle. CEL P0340 and P0345 codes are typically thrown. No warning is given before they go out. Good idea to keep spares in the vehicle when traveling in remote areas. Seems to affect all model years. Usually a 100k+ mile problem.
Crankshaft Sensor Failure ($)
Same information as the camshaft sensors above, but the code is P0335.
EVAP Breather Clogs ($)
The atmospheric vent for the EVAP canister is behind the rear driver’s wheel into the boxed frame. Its location makes it prone to clogging and failing due to dust and dirt. Typically P0448 code is thrown and can usually be fixed by dropping the entire canister and cleaning it out. To prevent the issue or stop it from happening again, the breather should be re-routed (i.e. behind the driver’s tail light) and caped with a filter.
Rear Differential Breather ($)
This isn’t so much an issue as a good idea. And what’s done on the Xterra from the factory is inline with just about every vehicle out there. The rear differential breather (the front, transmission and transfer case are all done much better and vent to a tube right next to the air box) is a small valve right on the passenger side axle. For anyone driving through dusty areas or water — it’s a poor place. They clog and then the diff can’t vent and pushes oil out through the seals. Or worse, they let dirt and/or water in. The workaround is like the EVAP breather. Re-route the breather up behind the passenger taillight and terminate with a filter.